Night is falling fast on South Burlington, and I find myself face to face with not one but two women with black eyes. Also, a hooker whose nickname sounds like “Poop,” and a tough-looking chick who’s laughing about separating some girl’s ribs three years ago.
Are they going to beat me? Nope, they actually want me to join them — as a member of the Burlington Women’s Rugby Football Club. After years of dropping the ball, the so-called “Burly Girls” recently clawed back up to a Division II berth in the New England Rugby Football Union, and have now qualified for regional playoffs on October 23. We’re at Jaycee Park for one of the twice-weekly evening practices, and I’m here to chat with some of the players, who range in age from twenty- to fiftysomething. Some of them have been battling cancer and other adversities while helping the team win, and win again.
Rugby is pretty rough and bawdy. But spend a little time with the Burly Girls, black eyes and all, and you start to see the appeal.
“You smash somebody on the field, and you’re like, ‘No hard feelings’ or ‘Good tackle,’” explains club president Maria Godleski, 35, a supervisor for the Vermont Department of Corrections. “And then, 80 minutes later, you’re shaking the other person’s hand and sitting down for a meal and a beer together. I’m always amazed to think about how many other women in New England love this sport as much as I do, and I don’t know another adult sport that has this much of a pull on people.”
A little history about the Burly Girls: They were once the Silver Foxes, an offshoot of the men’s-only Burlington Rugby Club that began in 1978. “In the ’80s there was a brief period of time where the wives decided they were done just watching and wanted to play,” says Godleski, a former University of Vermont player. She says the women’s team was resurrected with a new name in 1997.
Around the same time, women’s rugby was beginning to gain some national traction; an official U.S. under-23 team was formed, followed by new college teams and high school programs around the country. Still, recruiting and keeping solid players for the Burlington team was a struggle. “We don’t have the population to draw from, as compared to Boston or New York,” says 35-year-old Liz Royer, who joined the squad in 2001 after playing for Ohio Wesleyan University. She now heads up recruiting efforts.
Royer adds that the Burly Girls also have had trouble retaining coaches, and had to combine with the Saranac Lake Mountaineers in order to field a full “side”; they were dropped to Division III for a year. But now, with coaches Tree Bertram and Tiffany Renaud on board, the team has not only earned back its Division II spot but controls it, winning games this season and landing the playoff game, to be held on home turf.
“It’s been incredible to be part of the upward swing,” says Winooski’s Emily Morgan, 27, who founded a rugby team at Lake Forest College and began playing for Burlington in 2009. “We’ve had more and more women coming out to practice. We’ve had to change the mentality of the team to a culture of fitness and passion for the sport.”
Indeed, anyone who’s ever attended a collegiate rugby party can attest that rugby “fitness” often gives way to frothy beer and funny, profanity-filled songs. So, it’s not shocking to learn that the two main sponsors of the Burlington men’s and women’s clubs are Long Trail Brewing and Essex Junction’s On Tap Bar & Grill. But while the postgame socializing of rugby is nearly as important as actually playing the game, the Burly Girls have tempered the traditional ribaldry to a family affair. There are moms with young kids, and jobs to attend the next day. The focus is instead on socializing with the other team.
“I love rugby songs — they’re so awful,” says Eva Wermer, 23, of Winooski. “But they come out very infrequently.”
Godleski jokes that she works on her mental fitness, and others claim to hit the gym only on “pizza Mondays,” but in fact the Burly Girls take their stamina seriously, running together or playing other sports together in the off-season. “We have the full range of body types, from 5-foot-2 to 6-foot-4, and 90 pounds to over 200,” says Godleski. “But we’ve all, as a group, gotten a little bit fitter, a little bit more competitive.”
Coach Renaud, a chiropractor, high school coach and one of the original team members in 1997, says she got back in shape to play rugby by pushing her infant son in a stroller. Today, at Jaycee Park, the women are undergoing 90 minutes of conditioning, drills and full-contact games in preparation for their upcoming match. The Burly Girls, who are part of the “senior women” division of the New England Rugby Football Union, play six regular games in the fall season against clubs from such cities as Hartford, Boston and Portland.
“There are no pads, no protective gear except for a mouth guard,” Renaud points out.
And so, yeah, there are some injuries, which can be burdens or badges. “I’ve torn both of my ACLs and broken my hand playing rugby,” says Royer. “The worst are the ones you can’t see — concussions, sprains — and can’t show off to your friends.”
But pushing boundaries (safely, for the most part) is important. “Girls don’t grow up knowing what their bodies can do,” says Bertram, a former national rugby player who owns Burlington’s El Gato Cantina and, with Renaud, also coaches the South Burlington High School team. “Then they get in there, learn to hit and drive, and realize, I’m OK, I can do this. And then you go have a beer together. You build bonds for life.”
Such is the camaraderie among the Burly Girls that winning the New England playoffs and making nationals in Virginia Beach — which they fully intend to do — seems like a nice perk rather than the ultimate goal. Morgan says that after one team member was diagnosed with breast cancer last winter, and another lost many possessions in Tropical Storm Irene, the club rallied behind them. They plan to turn their post-play-off social into a fundraiser for flood relief. Annually, the Burly Girls team is one of the largest groups to participate in the Special Olympics’ fundraiser the Penguin Plunge.
“Whether it’s been giving rides to doctors’ appointments or babysitting someone else’s kids, the girls have come together on many different levels,” says Morgan. “And the best part of our team is that anyone is welcome at any time.”
It helps to think of rugby as a sport that began when someone just picked up the ball and began running with it. “There are a lot of misconceptions about rugby and the people who play it,” says 27-year-old match secretary Ashley Poupore, nicknamed “Poup.” (Yes, she’s the “hooker” — a forward position on the field.) “But the determination and grit of the women I’m lucky enough to play with, and against, is incredible.”
The Burlington Women’s Rugby Football Club plays in the New England Rugby Football Union Playoffs on October 23 at the Essex Tree Farm.